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I love birds so much.
My dad was a veterinarian when I was a kid, and I grew up around aviaries and parrots. Here I am aged about six, with my first bird ‘Fudge’, a budgerigar:
I have no fucking idea why he was called Fudge, but there you go.
Anyway, about five years ago I was drawn back into bird ownership, when I saw a cute orange ball of juvenile fluff in a pet store. I bought him on impulse.
His name was Keith (some of you who’ve followed me for awhile ask me about him sometimes, so I hope this piece might provide some answers) and fuck we had some fun times together.
Here he is with Jacinda Ardern, who would go on to become the Prime Minister of New Zealand:
And here’s Keith trying to eat my curry:
Back in 2016, I wrote an essay about what it was like living with Keith the conure. I’ve included that below, along with an update.
I hope your week is going well, that this makes you smile, and that you are staying safe and fighting on.
A Loveless Marriage I Can’t Escape.
I saw him before I heard him: A bright ball of orange quivering nervously on a tiny perch. He didn’t have a name - he was just a cute baby parrot sitting alone in a pet store.
Until that point I hadn’t believed in love at first sight, but I felt a warm swelling in my upper chest cavity. As I approached, the feathery, timid creature let out a tiny “peep!”
I knew it was love. I decided - on impulse - to buy.
Keith is my sun conure. He’s about two years old now. Photos of him fill my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds. He looks adorable in photos; snuggled under my shirt, or drinking a berry smoothie.
Birds have always been a part of my life. Growing up, I had a variety of parakeets; from budgies to cockatiels. On the day I met Keith, I hadn’t had a bird in some time, and I wanted one.
I was drawn to African Greys, one of the most intelligent parrots - but they were too big and required too much time. I’d never researched sun conures. Still, looking at those beautiful feathers and hearing that soft, searching squawk, my heart told me this was the parrot for me.
It was a huge mistake.
Life with Keith has been hell.
The first week with him was good. I brought him home from the pet store in a ginormous, breezy cage. Keith (I wanted a strong, manly name for this beautiful parrot) was fluffy. He would perch on my shoulder and burrow into my neck for warmth.
He would cling on as I walked to the cafe, where he would nibble at my croissant. He would make a futile cheeping noise if I left him alone. It was too cute to ignore. That first week he was like a second limb.
Then Keith found his voice.
I’ve since learned this is what happens with conures - and with Keith, it happened while he was perched next to my ear. He leaned in close with his giant black beak and screamed. I yelled in surprise, shocked. Keith screamed again. I yelled. He screamed. “Stop it!” I yelled at him, disoriented and angry. He didn’t stop.
He’s been screaming like that for 14 months and eight days. Keith screams when he wakes up at 7.30am, Keith screams when he’s hungry, Keith screams when he doesn’t have 100% of my attention.
Eating with Keith was once cute. Now it’s a nightmare. Whatever I’m eating, Keith must be eating it, too. He sits on the edge of my plate, chewing on toast. Bored, with a twist of his head, he flings it to the floor.
Then he’s swimming in my cereal, milk splashing onto my glasses. I still take him for walks, on my shoulder, but cafes are tiring of him.
Earlier today I was asked to leave the cafe. Unhappy customers had complained about Keith’s presence. “What next, will people bring their dogs in here?” one of them moaned, clutching a $5 flat white.
He’s manipulative. During last week’s storm he let out a tiny “peep”, scared at the thunder and lightening. I opened his cage door and he scampered under my covers. He refused to leave, biting down hard on my hand if I tried to get near him. He slept next to me, under the covers.
I lay there for hours, awake - partly afraid I’d squash him during my sleep; party afraid he’d bite a chunk out of my skin. At 7.30am he screamed in my ear. It signalled the start of another day.
The problem is Keith loves me. He loves me too much.
He’s bonded to me, and me alone. He refuses to spend time with anyone else, unless I’m no more than five metres away. No-one wants to babysit Keith. He’s not like a cat you get the neighbour to feed: He’s a loud, irritating force of nature.
I can’t sell him, because I know he’ll drive a new family to breaking point. I can’t release him into the wild, because he wouldn’t know what do and would die. He’s a terrible flier. The few times he’s tried to use his lazy wings he’s become stuck in trees, too terrified to come down; screaming for my help. I fetch the ladder.
According to Wikipedia, Keith will only live for another 28 years. I will be 60.
But I will finally have my freedom - to travel, to relax, to love again.
But sometimes I lie awake at night with the knowledge Keith may outlive me. I will be lying prone, Keith's cage looming over the end of my hospital bed, next to the drip. He will creep along his perch, a bright orange ball of feathers.
And as my eyes close for the final time, Keith will tilt his head, open his beak, and scream.
Afterword: Some time after I wrote that slightly tongue-in-cheek piece, it became pretty clear that I couldn’t give Keith the life he needed. I travelled too much for work. So I hunted and hunted and hunted for a home for him. And finally, I found one.
Keith now lives with some new humans - and some new parrots, too. Some of those parrots are conures. And Keith really liked one of them. Like, really liked. And it turns out Keith wasn’t a boy, Keith was a girl. And she laid some eggs, and they hatched.
Since my time with Keith, I’ve come to think that it’s kinda irresponsible for pet stores to sell ‘exotic’ parrots like conures and galahs - these little things that are going to grow into big things, that live for decades.
So many of these birds are going to end up being sold to clueless idiots, and end up ignored in the spare room, locked in a cage - the owner having no idea what they were getting themselves in for.
I’m not saying parrot ownership is bad - but you have to dedicate yourself to it. You have to know what you’re getting yourself in for. You have to commit to that bird. It’s more work than a cat, or a dog. It’s like you’re stuck with a two-year-old kid, but one who doesn’t grow up. Ever. Always two-years-old, for eternity.
I found a good solution for Keith - I got lucky. Keith got lucky. Other parrots out there may not end up in the same boat.